136 years ago, in 1882, when the Rev. George Leonard Chaney first came to Atlanta, it was just a lot of dirt. And by that I mean the prospect for liberal religion. The Civil War had ended only 17 years earlier, and Atlanta as a southern city was decidedly unfriendly soil for the seeds of Unitarianism with its strong anti-slavery views.
There had been other attempts to plant Unitarian congregations in Georgia. In 1827 a church in Augusta had been gathered, but it experienced, as one writer memorably put it, “strangulation.” After 1856 it was no longer listed in the yearbook of Unitarian churches.
Then there was the church in Savannah, gathered in 1831. It flourished for a time, but it too disappeared from the roster of Unitarian churches, this one by the end of the Civil War.
Today both congregations are alive and well, but the decades following the Civil War were bad, bad times.
And then there was this: between the years 1877 to 1900: an average of 190 lynchings annually in Georgia and other states. The The Ku Klux Klan was in full force of terror.
That’s what the Rev. George Leonard Chaney faced when he came to Atlanta.
Colleagues were warning him, telling him it would be a waste of time.
But think of the Dixie cups of dirt that children are given in religious education classes, to demonstrate the miracle of life. They are told to water their dirt and be patient and see what happens. Just so, the Rev. Chaney. He watered his cup of dirt faithfully. He believed that his cause would eventually prevail.
Once in Atlanta, he made arrangements for his first service. It would take place February 19, 1882, in the old Kimball House. He located all the known Unitarian families in the area, posted advertisements in the newspapers, did all the things you do when you’re wanting to plant a new congregation, and guess how many showed up? A Mrs. W. S. Morrill and a Miss E. E. Collidge. Two people. Among all the many possible tens of thousands of people living in Atlanta at the time.
Rev. Chaney’s next address was entitled “The Positive Principles of Unitarian Christianity,” and three more people showed up, bringing his audience to a whopping total of five. No one who was not already a convinced Unitarian. “This went on for six months,” he says—“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, and awakening few responses beyond its own echo.”
It’s like that beautiful old Taoist story of the farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbors heard the news and came running and shared their condolences. “Such bad luck!” they said. But the farmer replied “Maybe.”
Rev. Chaney, our spiritual ancestor, had faith. To the naked eye, things weren’t looking so good. But he walked by faith and not by sight. He kept on. He trusted his vision, of Unitarianism flourishing in Atlanta, and he had faith that it wasn’t all up to his efforts alone. The people would come. And the hidden power of Life that he called God was active in the work.
Life, hidden in what is ordinary and unlikely, like dirt in a Dixie cup, would stir and grow in its own good time.
One year later, in 1883, a new congregation was founded with not two or five people but twenty-seven charter members, called “The Church of Our Father.”
A building was built, and the young congregation found ways of walking the talk. Atlanta had a Young Men’s Library, with 12,000 volumes, but it was private, and you could use it only if you paid a fee. But what if you couldn’t afford it? And forget about even trying, if you were a woman, or if you were a person of color. There was need for a free lending library, because Unitarianism affirmed the value of the mind in religion. And all minds matter; the lending library should be a library for everyone, male or female, black or white, poor or wealthy. Paul in the Christian scriptures talked about how there was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ Jesus—and our ancestor congregation took on the task of incarnating these prophetic words practically, entrepreneurially, in establishing the lending library of their dreams.
Eventually the Carnegie Foundation got wind of it, saw how successful the venture was, and was inspired to establish no less than the current Atlanta Public Library.
It’s just like the next part of the old Taoist story. The next morning the horse that ran away returned, bringing with it three other horses. The neighbors came running. “How wonderful!” they exclaimed.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
Because life has ups and downs. Cling to only what is happening in the moment, right before your eyes, and you can’t flow with life, which is an ever-changing stream.
Following the founding of the Church of Our Father in 1883, up to the late 1940s, what we find is a congregation that is muddling along, some ups but mostly downs, with a membership roll that never goes above 50 people. It struggled financially. The Rev. Bob Karnan describes this rather frankly: “[The members of the Atlanta church] were, according to my readings of the financial records, a very cheap bunch. They constantly begged the American Unitarian Association for money to subsidize the operation, yet they never really supported it well themselves. Contributions of $5.00 per year were quite normal. Finally, in 1908, the president of the American Unitarian Association, Samuel Eliot, wrote the Atlanta members a letter, outlining their their organizational mismanagement, their sense of entitlement to be bailed out, and their inability to keep a minister longer than three years (most left after one). Dr. Eliot told them to fish or cut bait. Choose death or choose life.”
You can’t get any clearer than that. But our ancestor congregation continued muddling along anyway. It was lost. Born with a vision of serving all people, whatever their race and gender and class and on and on—as the free lending library initiative so wonderfully incarnated—but somehow the vision was forgotten, and the congregation found itself caught up in the drudge work of institutional maintenance and inwardness and dramas of all types. They were challenged to be scrappy but they kept on dropping the “s” to that word, if you know what I mean….
This is what led to the merger of Atlanta Unitarians with Atlanta Universalists in 1918, together with a new name: The United Liberal Church of Atlanta. We were the very first Unitarian Universalist congregation in history, a full forty three years before the two parent denominations came together in 1961.
Sounds exciting—but again, the historical reality is disillusioning. Says one of our Interim ministers in 1940, Frederic W. Perkins, “the merger was prompted more by a desire to offset the weakness of each than by a large-minded devotion to a common spiritual objective which was bigger than either, to which each could contribute its distinctive gifts, and which they could serve better together than apart. Furthermore, the Unitarian group was largely of an urban type and the Universalist group one of rural backgrounds, coming from small communities in Georgia and elsewhere. […] They have never, except in the case of large-minded individuals on both sides, gotten much beyond the stage of viewing each other ‘with distinguished consideration’—and not always that.”
All of which explains why our ancestor congregation back in 1918 and beyond was idiosyncratic. Universalists sat on one side of the aisle, Unitarians on the other; a Universalist usually held the treasurer’s post, while a Unitarian became president of the board. If the present minister was Unitarian, you better believe the next would be Universalist.
Back and forth, like a game of tennis.
All drama. Power plays, controversies, intrigues. And no issue provoked more of it than that of integration. In the fall of 1947, the minister at the time, Rev. Isaiah Domas, invited Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, a friend and colleague from Atlanta University, who also happened to be black, to attend services. Soon after, the Ku Klux Klan were hounding Rev. Domas and his family at their home. His daughter remembers peeking out her windows, two floors below, where she saw a convoy of battered cars and rusty pickup trucks stretched from Third Street to Ponce de Leon. Each was full of Klansmen in white robes tilting back their pointed hoods to hunt for motion behind their window drapes. Much later she asked her mother if her parents had been scared, and her mother replied, “We were too angry to be scared. Your father was not about to let a bunch of bigoted nincompoops tell him what to do.”
Unfortunately, the Rev. Domas encountered bigoted nincompoops within the congregation he served. Dr. Thomas Baker Jones had applied for membership in the church; a formal vote of the congregation was called for on December 5, 1947; 21 members voted to “exclude the Negro from all church functions,” 15 opposed the measure; and the rest, as UUCA member and Unitarian Universalist historian Jay Kiskel writes, “declined to cast a ballot in the best hush-ma-mouth Southern tradition.”
This spelled doom for the United Liberal Church of Atlanta. Rev. Domas resigned; the American Unitarian Association blacklisted the congregation and urged that no Unitarian minister serve it; and the Universalist Church of America did the same. Our ancestor congregation dug in its heels. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owned the building and practically everything else because the congregation was a cheap bunch, sold the building out from under them, to (get this) the very conservative Bible Research Foundation.
Was the dirt in our Dixie cup bone dry, and seeds of Unitarian Universalism dead?
But Life is flowing, Life is an ever-changing stream. And every new generation gets a new shot. One year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissioned the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and re-birth the failed congregation. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, was to a vision of human and civil rights. There is always drama to congregational life, always necessary institutional maintenance, always the tendency towards inwardness. But Rev. Canfield’ steady hands put the horse before the cart and established us on a firm foundation of vision.
If you had an order of service from that era, this is one of the things you’d read in it: “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.”
Rev. Canfield brought vision like this, and so did his successor, the Rev. Ed Cahill, and all of a sudden, the congregation that never went above 50 people shot up to more than 100 members, and beyond. “We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” The congregation lived it. For example, in the early 60s Coretta Scott King was leader of the youth group at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and our congregation and theirs arranged joint Sunday evening programs, alternating between them, so black and white young people could get to know one another. The Klan called and threatened violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consulted Coretta King regarding the options and she said to go ahead with the meeting. All parents were called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent held back. That evening, all the fathers came and ringed the church outside to form a visible wall of protection.
These are true hero moments. So many stories like this. Vision becoming real. You don’t just pledge $5 dollars a year to something like this. You throw money at this. You throw your time and you throw your energy at this, because it’s changing lives in a way no one can deny.
People in this generation—the generation when Civil Rights was the central, galvanizing social issue—watered the cup of dirt faithfully, and the seed grew, and who would have known that the seed was that of a redwood. In 1974, at the end of the pastorate of the Rev. Eugene Pickett, the congregation that was stuck at 50 for so many years would be at 1040 members, making it the largest congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
In 1966 the congregation moved to this location on Cliff Valley, and for 52 years it has found ways to walk the talk and serve Atlanta and the world. The ministers present before you, whose ministries have all been formed and nurtured in important ways by this congregation, witness to this truth.
How we launched Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
How we were integral to the launch of the Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in North Carolina.
Our work with Planned Parenthood in the 1970s, and our support of a Family Planning Clinic.
Our years serving at Cascade House, a shelter for homeless women with children.
Our Metro Ministry community service program, led by Joe Chancey, serving people affected by the AIDS crisis in the mid 80s into the 90s.
All our mentors working in inner city Hope-Hill Elementary School classrooms, starting in 1994 and it will continue on.
So much has happened in our 52 years of being in this space!
Our Lay Ministry Program, starting in 1996 under the leadership of The Rev. Diana Jordan Allende.
The Underground Theater, longest-running theatrical group in Atlanta history.
The UCAA Art Gallery, the longest-running gallery in Atlanta History.
Ens and Outs, the Peace Network, Promise the Children
All the classes, all the programs, all the small groups, all the meals, all the parties
All the meetings
All the children who grew up in our religious education classes, who were handed their own Dixie cups of dirt and learned about the Mystery and surpassing Wonder of Life, who were dedicated here, came of age here, went to youth group here, were loved and supported in their growing up here.
And starting next Sunday: not here. Another place. Temporary space we’re calling The Treehouse. And when it’s ready: the permanent space on North Druid Hills.
So is this when the neighbors in the old Taoist story come running, yelling “It’s a disaster!”?
We must walk faith and not by sight.
You look around and you see no hymnals. They’ve already been packed.
You look around the building and the walls are bare.
You look around and you see stacks and boxes and detritus.
But we must walk by faith and not by sight. The same sort of faith that Rev. George Leonard Chaney had when he came to Atlanta in 1882 to plant Unitarian seeds in Southern soil. The same sort of faith that strengthened Rev. Domas in 1947 to invite the “wrong” kind of people to church and therefore serve Love and Justice. The same sort of faith that has strengthened all the ministers, all the leaders, all the volunteers, since.
And we must keep our history in mind. The golden moments, of course, but especially the lead ones. Growth—progress—is just not inevitable. As we saw with our ancestor congregation roughly between 1890 and the late 1940s, we have the capacity to muddle along. We have the capacity to get ensnared by dramas and inwardness and the “s” just falls away from the word “scrappy.” It’s just part of us. We can tap into that as surely as all the other good stuff that’s also there. We can starve this congregation, OR we can feed it. We can falter in the face of the big spiritual and social challenges of our day, OR we can step forward in prophetic witness and incarnate love and justice as best as we know how. We can make decisions that in the moment seem expedient and wise but they are in truth fear-based and small-minded, OR we can make decisions that are courageous and truly needed in service to the bold spiritual call of becoming more than we ever thought possible.
The Rev. George Leonard Chaney came to Atlanta in 1882, and pretty much everyone considered it a lost cause, a wasted effort. Only two people showed up for his first address, five for the second. “I’m like a voice crying out in the wilderness,” he once said. But he kept on crying out, and he found a way, and through the power of faith he bore up the mystery of the reality of his day and time, and we were born.
He was bold then. We need to be bold now.